A Call to Action: Do You Want to BE the News or MAKE the News?

A Call to Action: Do You Want to BE the News or MAKE the News?

My name is Jennifer Mahr, and I write for the EYE using my initials JAM. I was at Tuesday night's Board of Ed meeting since I'm the one who normally summarizes the meeting for EYE postings. I wish each of you could have been there to hear Alexa McClain and then Monique McClain speak before the board. The utter helplessness of the moment can't be captured by mere words, and I still shudder to recall the horror that griped me.

So she stood there, sobbing, and speaking so softly that the entire room had to lean forward to catch her words. Amazingly, the audience was full of teachers and administrators from across the District who came to see if February's vacation would be cancelled, so the "system" couldn't have been more exposed to McClain's plight. Interestingly, though, because Monique used the democratic process we the people created to handle grievances such as hers, she's now facing an even greater threat to her personal safety.

There are almost 3 dozen comments on three articles that describe this situation, and most condemn the behavior and then say something to the effect of "I applaud your family for being so brave."

I'm sorry, but someone is going to have to throw the big red BS flag, so it might as well be me. I confess to having taught U.S. History at the college level, and I admit to having a slight preference for all things democratic. I just can't stand what I'm seeing and hearing anymore, and if you're allergic to the cold hard truth, you had better stop reading now.

In the Federalist No. II, John Jay wrote to the people of the State of New York and encouraged them to support the newly drafted Federal Constitution. Alexander Hamilton had written the first letter, and Jay's first paragraph and a half are worth repeating now: When the people of America reflect that they are now called upon to decide a question, which, in its consequences, must prove one of the most important that ever engaged their attention, the propriety of their taking a very comprehensive, as well as a very serious, view of it, will be evident. Nothing is more certain that the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers. Abraham Lincoln would say much later that "The legitimate object of governments is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all or cannot, so well do for themselves - in their separate and individual capacities."

Then we have the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads in Section 1, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

I'm not a Constitutional Lawyer, and I know that both Jay and Lincoln were referring to a Federal system of government when they made their comments. But listen to the spirit of what they said and then apply it to Monique McClain and all the other bullied children in the United States.

Jay and Lincoln had their moments: each stood at the edge of the unknown and each agreed that the united system of government created by the Constitution was our best hope for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans might disagree over the technical details of how that system comes to life, but we need it to have any chance at all.

Similarly, we need a Board of Education in our town. Middletown's forty-five thousand-plus residents have no way to manage 11 schools, hundreds of teachers, and thousands of school children without one. We wouldn't want the State of CT to manage our schools from afar, so politics are local because they have to be.

So here we are, in this place and in this moment. A very brave young woman stood in front of elected officials and reminded them nicely that she is experiencing repeated, verified, bullying incidents. Her mother has followed all the steps outlined in BOE Policy 5131.911, but these have not stopped the unacceptable behavior. Policy 5131.911 says in part: The Board of Education directs the Superintendent or his/her designee to develop and implement administrative regulations to address the existence of bullying in the schools. As provided by statute, such regulations shall: (9) direct the development of case-by-case interventions for addressing repeated incidents of bullying against a single individual or recurrently perpetrated bullying incidents by the same individual that may include both counseling and discipline, Looking at the specific language of the "Prevention and Intervention Strategy, " it says: For the purposes of this policy, “Prevention and Intervention Strategy” may include, but shall not be limited to:

1. Implementation of a positive behavioral interventions and supports process or another evidence-based model approach for safe school climate or for the prevention of bullying, including any such program identified by the Department of Education.
2. A school survey to determine the prevalence of bullying.
3. Establishment of a bullying prevention coordinating committee with broad representation to review the survey results and implement the strategy.
4. School rules prohibiting bullying, harassment, and intimidation and establishing appropriate consequences for those who engage in such acts.
5. Adequate adult supervision of outdoor areas, hallways, the lunchroom, and other specific areas where bullying is likely to occur.
6. Inclusion of grade-appropriate bullying prevention curricula in kindergarten through high school.
7. Individual interventions with the bully, parents; and school staff, and interventions with the bullied child, parents; and the school staff.
8. School wide training related to safe school climate.
9. Promotion of parent involvement in bullying prevention through individual or team participation in meetings, trainings, and individual interventions.

Students who engage in bullying behavior shall be subject to school discipline up to and including expulsion in accordance with the Board's policy on student discipline, suspension and expulsion.

Notice #5 calls for "adequate adult supervision." If there can be 11 specifically identified bullies, then there isn't adequate adult supervision. Notice also that it says "shall not be limited to." I read this to mean that Monique McClain should have never heard the words, "Our hands are tied, " or "We've done all we can," because this policy specifically lets the Intervention Strategy be anything it needs to be to stop the bullying.

How about that...ANYTHING it needs to be. Here's where I'm throwing the big red BS flag, and here's where our current situation differs from the Federalists and from Lincoln. Those giants of American History really didn't know what lay in front of them. They had an ideal they were committed to, they were hopefully sure they knew how to get there, and they went for it. They argued and eventually shed blood for a solid foundation to build a future on.

The Middletown Board of Education has no such excuse. We know what the future can hold when bullying goes unchecked. Just ask South Hadley, MA how it's going for them...

So here's my question: Do we want to BE the news when (or if) something physically happens to Monique McClain or do we want to MAKE news by pulling together as a community and seriously tackling this issue once and for all? Our moment is right now, and we can choose action or we can hide behind ineffective policies and well-meaning but utterly useless comments.

In the biblical story of Esther, a young Jewish girl becomes the Queen of Persia. Her nationality is a secret until a plot by the King's highest ranking official to exterminate the entire Jewish race forces her to a decision point: she can risk her own life by approaching the King (without being summoned) to plead for her people, or she can hope her royal position saves her life when everyone else dies. Her uncle urges her action, noting in Esther 6:14, "....And who knows but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?"

I'm not trying to suggest that BOE members are royalty, but I am saying that they are in their position for such a time as this. The Chairman, Mr. Raczka, is a lawyer by trade, so he certainly has the skills to craft a policy that will give Monique McClain and all other bullied children in Middletown the protection they deserve. His leadership and determination to get it right can make a difference, and he needs to do it right now. Why hasn't this issue made it on the agenda of a Board of Ed meeting?

Benjamin Franklin said to "Show thyself a man." Updated for today's sensitivity toward gender equality, I'll paraphrase that to say, "Show thyself a citizen." That means we can't sit this one out on the sidelines, and we can't expect someone else to do it for us. We need the Board of Ed to facilitate this process, but it seems that will only come at our insistence.

So I insist. You insist. We insist. Mr. Raczka told me on Monday afternoon that he welcomes emails from concerned parents and Middletown residents, so let them fly. Here's his email address: mailto:raczkated@mps1.org

Here's what we should want:

1. Immediate resolution to Monique McClain's educational status. If the Woodrow Wilson administration can't guarantee her a threat-free in-school environment, then the district must provide her with access to another school. If there isn't a policy that establishes how this happens, then make one. We Americans are good at inventing things that don't exist when government can't or won't protect us.
2. Who are these bullies and where are their parents? Let's see documented proof that the parents were notified in accordance with District policy, and then let's figure out how to hold parents accountable for their children's behavior. How about the District levels a fine per documented bullying instance? Or how about we go after the parent's driver's license? I know those rules don't exist, but why couldn't they?
3. If bullies need a babysitter, then I volunteer my time. It won't cost the District a penny. There's only one of me, so maybe a BOE member or several will follow suit. And those of you who told the McClain family that you stand alongside them in their fight should be willing to babysit as well. I'm sure the sheer embarrassment factor of having a random, really annoyed adult shadow will dampen any enthusiasm for further in-school bullying. The adult shadow should also be able to bill babysitting charges to the bully's parents.
4. Let's make news and make Middletown the center of national attention on this issue for the right reason. Let's partner with Wesleyan and Middlesex Community College and other local campuses and empower our young minds to work on a lasting solution. Get the experts here for a national conference and invite everyone in town to participate. Call Oprah and Katie and anyone else you can think of and let's do this.

Or, the moment will pass and we'll go back to shoveling snow, and Middletown will probably be in the news again for yet another tragedy. Can you live with that? If our bullying policy in effect creates a situation where one child has unequal access to the educational system, we already know what that should mean. If your child is next, what hope will there be for you? The next regular BOE meeting is March 8. You have three minutes to tell the board what you think. I'll see you there.